Taika Waititi's new movie shows the Kiwi writer/director/actor to be as fearless a film-maker as ever, wringing uneasy laughs and brutal pathos out of one of the darkest periods in recent human history.
During World War II, 10-year-old German Jojo Betzler (British actor Roman Griffith Davis) is an enthusastic participant in the Hitler Youth movement but his lack of a killer instinct earns him the titular nickname.
An imaginary friend, in the form of Hitler himself (played by Waititi), provides comfort but Jojo's Nazi-driven mindset is challenged when he discovers a Jewish girl (Kiwi Thomasin McKenzie) that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their attic.
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You have to admire Waititi for taking all the cultural and commercial capital he built up with the huge success of Thor: Ragnarok, and channelling it into ... a Hitler comedy passion project. Like every film Waititi makes, Jojo Rabbit is unmistakeably his, with no shortage of awkward interactions, bumbling, deadpan comedy and earnest appreciation for humanity, even at its most fallible.
The combination of his identifiable style with such a grave subject matter is perhaps initially a little jarring but the film's intentions are never in doubt and it soon finds a confident groove, in which it induces laughter and tears with equal skill.
The director's performance as the führer is so odd you can only laugh. Davis is a hugely empathetic lead and Archie Yates steals every scene he's in as Jojo's pal, Yorki. Among a talented supporting cast, Stephen Merchant (co-creator of The Office) is particularly funny as a Gestapo agent.
An existing affection for Waititi's specific brand of humour will help audiences embrace this film, but the bold optimism of his worldview comes through in any context.
Roman Griffith Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi
M (Violence and content that may disturb)
Laugh-out-loud hilarious, gently sad and not afraid to tug on your heartstrings.